Tag Archives: Oberlin College

Celebrating Black in STEM

I have been very fortunate to know and work with outstanding Black scientists throughout my career.  Here are a few of them.

I met Joe Graves when we were undergraduates at Oberlin College.  We took an evolution course together.  I remember discussing with Joe our mutual fascination with evolution and wondering how we might go about studying it.  I met up again with Joe at UC-Irvine, where we were both conducting evolution experiments—Joe using fruit flies, and me with bacteria.  Joe and I reconnected once more when he and I became founding members of the BEACON Center for the Study of Evolution in Action.  Joe now studies bacterial evolution, and we are becoming scientific collaborators as well.

JoAnn White was an ecologist at UNC, studying the life-history and population dynamics of periodical cicadas.  She served on my doctoral advisory committee and was a highly successful faculty member.  Unfortunately, she left academia, even though she had tenure, because it was too frustrating. I was honored that she asked me to write a reference letter when she moved to a new profession.  But it was a terrible loss for academia to lose such an outstanding scientist and role model as JoAnn White.

Paul Turner was one of my first graduate students.  He joined my lab in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at UC-Irvine, and he moved with me to MSU, receiving his Ph.D. in 1995.  Paul has impressed me in many ways, not only as a superb scientist and mentor, but also in his upbeat outlook on life.  Somehow he manages to smile and laugh about the challenges of being a departmental chair and interim dean, even while running a lab that conducts ground-breaking research.

Lynette Ekunwe was my lab manager and technician for seven years after I moved to MSU. She helped to sustain the long-term evolution experiment with E. coli after its move from UC-Irvine, and she helped run my lab group as it grew in size. Lynette moved to Jackson State University when her husband, the late Steve Ekunwe, took a faculty position there. After the move, Lynette earned a doctorate in public health, and she now works in the field of epidemiology.

I first met Scott Edwards when he was a graduate student at UC-Berkeley. I suspected that he was a rising star, and I was right.  Although Scott and I have not collaborated on actual science, we’ve worked together in other ways.  Scott and I served successive terms as Presidents of the Society for the Study of Evolution, and he has been a valued member of the External Advisory Board for the BEACON Center.

Shenandoah Oden was an undergraduate from Detroit when she joined my lab in the 1990s.  She worked with postdoc Santiago Elena on measuring the fitness effects of random insertion mutations in E. coli, leading to a paper in Genetica. What I remember best about Shenandoah is a question she asked me right after Brendan Bohannan presented his dissertation seminar: “How do scientists come up with the questions they ask?” I told her that was the best question that any student had ever asked me.  It reminded me of how Joe Graves and I, when we were undergrads, wondered how we might study evolution. To Shenandoah, I explained the importance of personal curiosity and mentors in finding questions that are both interesting and answerable.

Marwa AdewaMaia Rowles and Kiyana Weatherspoon were three excellent undergraduate researchers in my lab, all of whom were mentored by Zachary Blount. Maia and Kiyana were coauthors on a paper in the Proceedings of the Royal Society, London B, which reported the results of what we call the “all-hands project”—one in which a generation of lab members performed a set of parallel assays to measure the subtle changes in fitness in late generations of the long-term evolution experiment with E. coli. Marwa now works in the field of veterinary medical research, while Maia and Kiyana are pursuing careers with a biomedical focus.

Judi Brown Clarke was, until very recently, the Diversity Director for our BEACON Center. In that role she generated and managed many successful programs that introduced hundreds of students at all levels to evolution and provided them with opportunities to engage in scientific research. She also was a great listener and valuable source of advice for many of us when we faced personal challenges and setbacks. An Olympic medalist, Judi recently became the Chief Diversity Officer at Stony Brook University.

I met Jay Bundy in 2013, at the Evolution meeting in Snowbird, Utah.  Who was this student who was asking so many thoughtful, insightful questions of the speakers?  I ran into Jay as we rushed between talks, introduced myself, and learned that he was a masters student at Penn State.  He wasn’t sure if he was interested in microbes, but I encouraged him to think about joining BEACON.  Jay came to MSU, first as a BEACON staff member contributing to education and outreach activities, and then as a graduate student in the Department of Integrative Biology.  He also contributed to the all-hands project.  However, he switched from studying bacteria to digital organisms, and he’s now performing and analyzing experiments to quantify how the duration of history in an evolving lineage’s previous environment influences its subsequent evolution in a new environment. Stay tuned for Jay’s findings—he’s working on a huge paper. Jay is as deeply thoughtful about science and life as I imagined when I first heard his questions at the Evolution meeting.

I also met Nkrumah Grant in 2013, when he visited MSU while exploring possible graduate programs.  He immediately impressed me with his personal story of overcoming obstacles.  Nkrumah explained to me his love of science as a child, and how he had gotten discouraged and derailed before undertaking a concerted effort to pursue his dream of science and scholarship.  And pursue it he did … and continues to do.  From a G.E.D. to a Ph.D.  Co-author on the all-hands project, co-first-author on a paper just published in eLife, and three more papers posted to bioRxiv in the last few weeks.  He also just defended his dissertation, giving a beautiful public seminar followed by an engaging, collegial exam.  Nkrumah has done all this and more while being a dedicated father and working tirelessly to promote equity and inclusion in science.

Last but not least, Ali Abdel Magid and Jalin Jordan are two of the current generation of superb undergraduate researchers in the lab. Ali is working with Nkrumah on the evolution of bacterial cell size, while Jalin works with Kyle Card on the evolution of antibiotic resistance.  Both Ali and Jalin are also working toward future careers in medicine. This summer, they are reading work that integrates evolution and medicine including the landmark book, Why We Get Sick, by Nesse and Williams, and the path-breaking paper by Tami Lieberman et al. on the evolution of bacteria in the lungs of CF patients.

My science is better, and my life richer, because of all these people, and many more.  How much better science would be, and how much richer all of our lives would be, if we would open more doors, listen more carefully, and live, learn, and work together.


After reading a draft of this essay, Nkrumah Grant, Joe Graves, and Jay Bundy all asked me to say more about this:  How can we achieve the aspirations expressed in my closing sentence above? 

I plan to reflect more on their vital question.  In the meantime, I invite readers who have ideas to put them in the comments below.

EDIT: I should also acknowledge two other influences: A high-school teacher, Mrs. Clayton, who taught a Black History class that I took, and who introduced me to Frederick Douglass, whose autobiography I read with awe and admiration.

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Lenski Interview with The Molecular Ecologist

John Stanton-Geddes asked me some great questions for a series on “People Behind the Science” at The Molecular Ecologist blog.  He gave me permission to repost the interview here.

1) Did you always think you’d become an evolutionary biologist?

No!  I always enjoyed being outdoors (sports and hiking), but I didn’t have any particular interest in biology.  However, my mother (who dropped out of college when she married, but then co-authored a sociology textbook with my father) was very interested in biology.  She would give me articles she had read and enjoyed from Natural History and elsewhere.

I went to Oberlin College, where I thought that I might major in government.  But I disliked my first government class.  I also took a team-taught biology class for non-majors.  All of the instructors spoke on topics about which they cared deeply, and I was hooked!  I took more biology courses, and I was especially drawn to ecology because there were so many ideas and questions.  At that time, I wrongly viewed evolutionary biology as a more descriptive, old-fashioned field with fewer questions that one might still address.  (By the way, several other evolutionary biologists were at Oberlin when I was there including Deborah Gordon, Joe Graves, Kurt Schwenk, and Ruth Shaw. Not bad for a small school!)

I went to graduate school at the University of North Carolina, where Nelson Hairston, Sr., was my advisor.  Nelson was interested in the interface of ecology and evolution, and that opened my eyes.  I was also influenced by Janis Antonovics, then at Duke University.  I took his Ecological Genetics course, and he served on my committee.  Janis had written a paper in which he argued that “The distinction between ‘ecological time’ and ‘evolutionary time’ is artificial and misleading.”  That really got me thinking.  I tried to develop a couple of field-based projects that would address evolutionary questions, but I didn’t know what I was doing and they failed.  In the end, my dissertation project was pure ecology.

By then, though, I knew I wanted to pursue evolutionary biology.  While we were finishing our doctoral projects, a fellow grad student Phil Service and I spent a lot of time discussing model systems for studying evolution.  For his postdoc, Phil chose to work with Drosophila.  I recalled an undergrad course in which we read about elegant experiments with microbes that addressed fundamental questions, such as one by Salvador Luria and Max Delbrück showing that mutations happen at random and not in response to selection.  Meanwhile, in a graduate seminar, we read a paper by Lin Chao and Bruce Levin on the coevolution of bacteria and viruses.  I wrote Bruce to ask if he might have an opening for a postdoc.  Lucky for me, Bruce knew Nelson and invited me for a visit.

2) You’ve described the theme of your research as “the tension between chance and necessity”. Can you comment on how chance and necessity have shaped your career?

The ancient Greek philosopher Democritus said, “Everything existing in the universe is the fruit of chance and necessity.”  In my long-term evolution experiment with E. coli, we can explore the tension between chance and necessity because we have replicate populations started with the same ancestor and evolving under identical conditions, and because we can replay evolution from different points along the way.  But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to tease apart the roles of chance and necessity with a sample size of one, which is the life that each of us has experienced, and without the ability to replay our own lives.  (On that last point, let me recommend Replay, a science-fiction novel by Ken Grimwood.)

I would say, though, that most people who have had some success in their adult lives also started out very lucky.  We were fortunate to be born at times and in places where we had food, familial love, education, and opportunity.

3) Reading your blog it’s clear that you are a student of the philosophy and history of science. Do you think we should include more history and philosophy in scientific training? Any advice on something we should all go out and read?

I do think that the history and philosophy of science deserve more emphasis in science and education than they usually receive.  But I didn’t have any formal education in those areas.  Instead, I became interested in these issues through teachers, mentors, colleagues, and my own explorations.

For something to read in this area, I suggest Darwin’s Century by Loren Eiseley.  (Originally published in 1958, it was republished in 2009 by Barnes & Noble.)  The book discusses the fascinating history of evolutionary thought in the decades before and after the publication of The Origin of Species.  I first read Darwin’s Century in a course at Oberlin taught by James Stewart.

4) If you were starting your career today, what would you study? 

If I were starting today, and at my present age, I might choose to study the history of science, especially evolutionary biology and its antecedents.

But if I were starting out young, as one usually does, I’d like things to unfold as they did.  It might be tempting to skip the rough patches, but dissatisfaction with my early research led me to make the switch to microbial evolution.  Would I have enjoyed this lab-based work as much, if I hadn’t discovered that I was not nearly as good at fieldwork as many of my peers?

5) How close have you come to giving up as a researcher and doing something completely different?

The job market was tough when I was a postdoc, and I had a growing family to support.  So after a slew of applications and rejections, and a period of uncertain funding, I started to think about other possibilities.  Luckily for me, things turned around before I had to make a switch.  (You can read more about it in my blog post, The Good Old Days.)

6) What’s the meaning of life?

I think that some understanding of evolution—at a basic level accessible to anyone with an open mind and a decent education—gives perspective about our place, both as individuals and as a species, in the grand sweep of time and space.  Recognizing the transience of my personal existence fills me with awe and respect for the continuity of life and ideas.  And belonging to a species that is profoundly altering the world that enabled the continuity of life reminds me of our responsibility for ensuring its future.


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